"Quarter" originally appeared in the August 22 and 29, 1931, issues of the Nebraska Farmer, but has not appeared widely in print since. The story found its genesis in Jim Thompson's experiences as a bellhop at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth. Like the story's victim, Thompson padded his salary with illicit income. "Quarter" is one of the two detective stories Thompson ever wrote, as he preferred to portray life from the viewpoint of the criminal.
James Meyers Thompson was born in 1906 in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the son of a corrupt lawman. After an itinerant childhood, Thompson spent several years working in the oil fields of the southwest before settling down as a writer. Although he wrote 29 novels and two screenplays (with Stanley Kubrick), he never attained full recognition for his talents until after his death in 1977.
It was about three in the morning at Mexican Joe's. A dingy lantern hanging from the unused electric chandelier cast an eerie light against the cobwebbed walls. Everything was quiet except for the gentle snores of Joe who lay beneath the counter. I was eating hot tamales while I waited for my relief on the Mexican quarter beat.
There was little sound on the brick street outside. Occasionally a giant beetle whirling around the street light would crash into the pavement. At least it sounded like a crash. Then you could hear, furtively, the smothered wail of an infant or the half-muttered speech of someone turning in his sleep. That was about all.
The buildings were two and three stories high and all wood. In some there were windows; in fact, practically all had windows on the street floor, but the other apertures were largely boarded up or stuffed with pillows and sacks. Only the distant swift transit of light through a crack told you that people lived, loved and died behind those dirty gray boards.
I wrapped the husks from my tamales up in a newspaper, laid it on the table and placed a quarter on top of it. Then hearing footsteps outside I lit a cigarette and sauntered to the door, thinking of something sharp to say to Flannagan for being late.
I was about to raise the match to my cigarette when something about the footsteps made me hesitate. I dropped the match and listened, holding my breath. The heavy-footed Flannagan had never walked like that. I felt for the butt of my gun. Except for the police there are only two kinds of people who walk like the Mexican quarter at night, crooks and strangers.
A man in a pure white suit passed the doorway. He was wearing white canvas shoes, too, so that a look at the back of his coat convinced me that he was in a uniform, a hotel uniform. The kind that bellhops at the Lansing wore during the summer.
This did look pretty rotten. The Lansing is one of the biggest hotels in town, but I knew that it stood for a lot of dirty work from its employees. One suicide a year is plenty for a big hotel and the Lansing had one almost every month.
I craned out of the door as far as I could and followed the nattily dressed figure with my eyes. His hair was black and slicked down with some sort of smelly grease and his head was too small and sharp for an honest man. There was something treacherous too, about his easy skipping walk. He looked like the fellow you're always afraid of finding behind you on a dark street.
Then, at the corner beneath the street light he turned and I recognized him. Skippy Kahn.
If you'd be around town as long as I had I wouldn't need to tell you that Skippy was about the worst rat living. He was a sneak thief, a dapper for crooked games and about everything else that a decent man shouldn't be. But, because he was a stool-pigeon he managed to keep out of jail. At that, I didn't see how he had managed to land at the Lansing. He was too tough an egg to work even in a place of that kind.
Naturally, I didn't have to guess but once I figure out that something dirty was about to happen with Skippy Kahn in the Mexican quarter. What I didn't think about was that it would happen to him. We all get fooled though.
He stood behind the lamp post evidently waiting for someone while I tried to keep out of sight and at the same time watch him. As I waited he lit a cigarette and flipped the match into the air. And almost as he had done it I heard the faint hum of tires on the rough brick.
Slowly the car came on. It was without lights, I could tell, because there was no reflection against the sallow walls of the buildings about me. The motor was practically silent. It was, perhaps, a minute and a half after I first heard it until it had passed the doorway in which I stood. I opened the screen and I stepped out to the walk.
A little chill ran down my back. There was something so ghostly about that car. The curtains were drawn on front and side and with its slow easy movement it resembled nothing quite so much as a hearse. At the last minute I noticed that it bore no license plates. Somehow, with premonition of what was about to happen I almost opened my mouth to shout.
Then, without warning the lights went on and Skippy who was almost in the center of the street was directly in their focus. He was at least a hundred feet away from me but in that brilliant glare I could see the expression on his face clearly. It may sound queer, but he looked like a rabbit being hunted by searchlight. And like a rabbit he stood there, paralyzed, and waited for death. For it was death.
The quiet motor suddenly hummed like a giant wasp. There was a sudden quick clash of gears. In a moment, that easily gliding car assumed a breath-taking speed--the tires fairly hummed with the sudden acceleration. Then it was all over.
Skippy never moved out of his tracks. He didn't have time. The speeding black car caught him full-center with its bumper, downed him, spun him against the bricks, then with one last roaring effort sent him crashing against the shoddy frame of the building with a shock that shook the whole street.
Then the car was gone and for that matter so was Skippy Kahn.
Flannagan came panting up at that moment, derby hat in hand.
"Been watchin' 'im...why I was late...shall I call headquarters?" he gasped.
"Afterwards," I said. "Call the coroner now."
That morning I dropped in at the Lansing. Byers was the name of the superintendent of service. His clothes and his manners were a little too good for his job and he had a smile he could turn on and off. I didn't like him.
"Got a boy working here by the name of Skippy Kahn?" I asked.
He raised his eyebrows.
"Charles Kahn, you mean, I'm sure," he said. "He was one of our best bellmen. He was killed last night. Didn't you read about it?"
"I saw it," I said. "And it wasn't an accident. He was murdered. I'm trying to find out why. Where was Skippy going last night when he was killed?"
Byers smiled helplessly. "If only we knew," he said. "But you see, there's really no way of telling. It's all a mystery here to us."
I got down to business.
"Listen," I said. "I know something about hotels. Don't you keep a record of the rooms that your bellboys go to? Don't they have to write down what they went to that room for? If they don't and you don't the Lansing has been breaking a state law for a long time."
I didn't have to mention the law but once to make Byers see the light. He folded up like a camp chair, took me across the lobby and presented me to the bell captain, and in a minute I was looking through the record of the room calls for the night. Then, assuring me that he would do anything within his power to solve the mystery, Byers faded out of the picture. I didn't bother to thank him.
It had been a fairly quiet night so my job was easy. Skippy Kahn had only two calls between two and three o'clock. One of these had been to the room of an established guest of the hotel who wanted some aspirin. The other room looked as if it might be a clue.
I got the occupant's name from the clerk and caught the elevator up. A small nervous man with quick, jumping eyes opened the door. I showed him my badge and went in.
"What was Skippy Kahn doing up here last night?" I shot at him.
"I don't know what you mean," he answered.
"Well, the bellboy that got killed."
Only his eyes betrayed the speed at which his mind was working, for his words rolled from his tongue as smoothly as if the answer had already been there.
"Why, I called for a blanket about two-fifteen," he replied. "The boy, Skippy, whom you mention, answered the call. He told me that linen room was closed and that it would be impossible to get one. I asked him to try to procure one from a vacant room and I guess he did make some effort to fulfill this request. But he was unsuccessful and came back and told me so and I gave him a quarter and dismissed him. That was all I saw of him and all I know of him."
I didn't say anything. I stepped across the room and turned off an electric fan that was placed to blow across the foot of the bed. Then at the head turned off another. The sweat began to roll from his brow and from mine too.
"It was only about ninety last night," I said. "Why didn't you turn off these fans if you felt chilly?"
He turned white as a sheet. "Say, what do you want anyway?" he blurted.
"What have you got?" I asked. And before he had time to answer, I continued. "Now, listen here, Jack. you're likely to get into a whole lot of trouble about this mess. In fact, I'm going to see that you do get into plenty if you don't break square with me. Personally, I think you're on the level. If you want me to keep that opinion you'd better tell the truth. Now, I don't care about your personal habits or anything else. All I want to know is what Skippy Kahn was doing up here this morning."
When I mentioned "personal habits," his eyes fell and I almost felt sorry for him. I knew his trouble.
"You won't have me locked up?" he asked, finally.
I said I wouldn't.
"All right then." He came over to where I was sitting and looked me squarely in the eye. "I'm a dopehead," he said, quietly. "I don't suppose that's any secret to you. I've been out of the stuff for two days. Last night I took a chance and called this bellboy. He said that he could fix me up. I gave him $50. That's the last I've heard of him until you came in just now."
I got up and looked him over carefully.
"Your story sounds pretty good," I said, "especially since we found a fifty on Skippy. And you don't look like a crook. As far as I'm concerned you can check out any time you want to. But one more thing: Did Skippy give you any idea as to where he was going to get this stuff?"
He shook his head slowly. "I'm afraid he didn't," he replied. "He did say that he could get it in less than five minutes, although I don't suppose that will help you much."
"You never can tell," I said, and left him.
Five minutes did mean something to me.